Tag Archives: library science

Reading the Stacks: Remnants of Community in the Circulating Collection — by Brandon Harrington

For the past year, I have been reading the stacks at the Burke Library. Not reading every book, but reading the collection: how it is organized, what subjects have more texts, what sections see more traffic.

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, "Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress." by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

Photograph of a sign in the stacks that says, “Do Not Remove, Shelf-Reading In Progress.” by Brandon Harrington, at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary (2018).

 

Since December 2016, I have been playing the vibrations between student and Library Circulation Assistant. The library is where I work in a double sense. But over the course of my time at Union, the two roles have collapsed into one another, and I can honestly say that my education at Union would have been very different had I not gained extensive familiarity with Burke’s collection. My knowledge of Burke’s holdings has grown through sharing in the curiosity and creativity of countless patrons. Helping researchers find books has been an education in and of itself, taking me to aisles and titles I would likely never otherwise explore. But apart from assisting patrons, my familiarity has grown most through shelf-reading.

 

Shelf-reading, a crucial part of library maintenance, is one of the responsibilities that comes with being a Circulation assistant. It consists of going through the stacks, book by book, to make sure the collection is shelved correctly. It helps us find books that were mis-shelved and marked “lost,” pull books in need of repair, and return books to other Columbia libraries that wound up in the Burke stacks. With a total of over 700,000 onsite books in 5 levels of stacks spanning 24,580 square feet, it is rather easy for a book to find its way onto some distant shelf, far from where it should be. While shelf-reading is an essential task for ensuring that patrons can locate resources, the task of shelf-reading sounds tedious. But my not-so-secret secret is that I love it.

 

It is one thing to understand that libraries organize knowledge. It is an entirely different thing to tangibly experience the assumptions that go into their organization. Burke has two different collections with distinct classification systems: the Union stacks and the Library of Congress (LC) stacks. The periodical section is shelved alphabetically. None are “neutral.”

 

The Burke is one of the few remaining theological libraries that still circulates books shelved according to the Union classification system, originally designed for the Seminary’s holdings. Julia Pettee developed and implemented the cataloguing system over fifteen years, beginning in 1909. The acting librarian at the time, William Walker Rockwell, recorded in the preface to the published classification: “It is a principle of this classification to look upon Christianity as the central theme reaching out in all directions; and wherever a Christian topic touches a field of interest to make a place for it within that field.”[1] (Check out former librarian Elizabeth Call’s piece on Julia Pettee published on this blog in 2014 here.)

 

Reviewing the breakdown of the Union stacks, I realized how drastically today’s collection has changed in character with the continually-growing LC stacks, just as the population at Union has evolved over the years. The latest incoming class is reportedly the most religiously diverse, including the largest population of unaffiliated students Union has ever welcomed. Looking back on the ideals, assumptions, and goals that went into the organization of the Union stacks, it became clear to me how much the collection is a relic of the Seminary’s past character. So much so that it seems to describe a different Seminary entirely from the one I have come to call my home. Because of its date of production, the Union classification has no designation for Liberation or Feminist or Womanist or Queer Theologies. No space within its categories for the theological voices that have been so formative and foundation for me and for many of my peers. No space for the ways of doing theology that have since emerged largely within Union’s walls.

 

Shelf-reading the collection today, I find that the sections most out of order best reflect the evolving character of the Union community. While I recognize the necessity for our books to be organized, I revel in the disordering that happens. Reading the stacks reveals a latent sense of Burke’s community of readers. The disordering archives a challenge to its organization, a manifestation of the fact that new works are being produced, works that might give cause for reorganizing the collection, works that will push the boundaries. The books on the shelves change constantly, and the bits of information, communicated through the collection itself, speak volumes with a moment of pause and a little attentiveness. I find in the disorder a remnant of the community I will soon leave after graduation.

 

Two weeks ago, we lost Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology. Since Cone’s passing, the section where his books are housed has thinned quite a bit. I know that folks are returning to his words, continuing to hear his voice through his writings. It reminds me of something I noticed in the library while taking Prof. Cone’s course, Foundations in Christian Theology, the last time Dr. Cone taught this course, the course with the infamous 20-page syllabus.

 

I saw Dr. Cone’s impact through the changes in the stacks. Cone repeatedly encouraged: “You have to find your theological vooooooice.” Over the course of the semester, the BT section, the LC classification for “Theology,” swelled and compressed, mirroring the theological turns we traced every Tuesday morning under Dr. Cone’s passionate and meticulous guidance. We were pulling books to find our voices.

 

I graduate in eight days. We have almost completed shelf-reading the LC stacks. They are reset for another round of disordering, and I wonder how the stacks will bear the remnants of its community in the years to come. As I close this chapter of Circ assisting and graduate study, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read the stacks and to see through them the reflections of the Union Seminary I have known and been a part.

 

                       -Brandon Harrington, UTS Class of ’18

 

[1] Julia Pettee, Classification of the Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, ed. Ruth C. Eisenhart (New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1967), iii.

Circulation Team Re-Orientation: New Year, Fresh Start

The Burke Library is of course a world-renowned research library and serves as the steward of rare volumes, sacred objects, and archives of Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. But the Burke is also home to a thriving circulating collection; thousands of books, bound periodicals, microforms, and audio-visual materials change hands at our front desk every single day. And the people who keep this system running smoothly and pleasantly are our beloved Circulation Team, consisting of students at UTS, Columbia College, and Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This team of over a dozen current students is the face of the library. They greet visitors who enter the front door and offer support and answer questions about finding the resources they need. We know we can rely on the Circ Team for keeping the Burke Library running smoothly and we appreciate them immensely. That’s why we were excited to offer a team-wide re-orientation session for them at the start of the New Year—with pizza and games related to the technical aspects of circulation. Myself and the Circulation Supervisor, Deanna Roberts, brainstormed, created, and led the session with the goal of strengthening the unity of the Circ Team in providing outstanding and consistent high-quality service and meticulous maintenance of our collections.

We got the idea for the re-orientation training because it was clear to us that, while the team as a whole have been doing a fantastic job lately, the various members of the team had somewhat different approaches to many of the processes that their responsibilities entail. For example, some Circ Team members place the outgoing mail in a different spot than others, some use different notation formats for the record logs, and some—try as they might—had not been checking the drop boxes and maintaining the shelves in the stacks as regularly as we would hope. The Circ Team has a complex set of responsibilities; in addition to checking books in and out and helping patrons with their library needs, they are responsible for shelving, maintaining the stacks, fixing printers and copier equipment, scanning materials for our Scan & Deliver service,  opening and closing, keeping the library’s appearance neat and orderly, and serving as ambassadors for the library in their academic community. It’s a lot to keep track of. Many of our students come from different academic programs across the campus and have varying degrees of familiarity with the multiple aspects of the front desk. Deanna and I aim for the Circ Team to be consistent in the responsibilities of each team member during their shift, and the training session offered us a chance to get everyone “on the same page.”

We offered two paid sessions during the January Intercession, one on a Monday and one on a Wednesday, at 5:00pm after the library had closed—and (though attendance at either of the sessions was mandatory) we sweetened the deal with complimentary pizza, soda, and cookies. We were glad to have 100% attendance across the two sessions. Prior to that week, Deanna and I sat down twice in person to plan the content and delivery of the sessions, and we created a Google Doc to share our ideas for the agenda. Deanna planned the delivery of the parts that would cover technical services at the Circ desk, and I planned the section covering library face-to-face interactions and public services. We gave each other feedback and collaborated to create a comprehensive 90-minute program plan, including—at Deanna’s suggestion—a 10-minute assessment at the end to gather feedback from the students on our content delivery.

The sessions, as we heard back from several students, were fun and engaging. The flexible scheduling and bonus pizza made it seem less like a chore and more like a party.

Quiz Show slide from PowerPoint presentation with question and answer

Circulation “Quiz Show” slide with hidden answer that pops up with the click of the leader’s mouse. (Burke Library, January 2018)

Add to that the fact that we designed the training to take the form of a series of games.  First, over dinner, we started with a “Game Show” in the form of an animated PowerPoint, with students guessing the answers to multiple-choice and  true-or-false questions such as “Student employees are allowed to handle fines and fees related to late and lost materials” (Answer: False) and “How many times a day should the book drop boxes be checked?” (Answer: At least twice, once mid-morning and once in the early evening).

The answers were animated to pop up on the screen after the questions had been discussed, fostering a lively and engaging time.  Next came two back-to-back challenges related to shelving and LC Call Numbers: one with physical book carts the students were tasked with putting in order, and one with a computer-based quiz that also asked students to put virtual books in order by call number.

Screenshot of Quia.com LC Call Number Order Quiz

Quia.com LC Call Number Order Quiz (Burke Library, January 2018)

We wrapped up the evening with a discussion of public services, asking the students how they would respond to different types of questions from patrons in different scenarios, and to whom they would refer the questions they didn’t feel comfortable answering. We ended the session by soliciting feedback from the students in the form of “Stars, Deltas, and Key Learnings,” a framework Deanna had learned through her vocational training, with opportunities for the students to name things about the session that worked well for them, things that could be improved, and significant take-aways that stood out. We received positive feedback on the quizzes, scheduling flexibility, and scenario-based patron question discussion. We think we can improve on making the sessions more visual, more hands-on, and based in the physical setting of the Circ Desk environment. The Circ Team generally seemed more confident in the support they receive from supervisors as well as their own abilities to keep the library functioning smoothly. All told, it was a positive experience for the participants, and we hope to offer similar training sessions for our wonderful Circ Team in the future.

From Finding Aids to Floppy Disks

I spent yesterday and today getting acquainted with my first archival box. To learn and get experience with writing a finding aid, I’m working with materials that already have a finding aid, “The Chinese Church of Christ in Korea papers 1908-1975.” Some of what needed to be done was basic copy editing and formatting the document.

Korea cover photoBut the fun part was getting to explore the folders in the box. Part of what I was doing was comparing the box content to the descriptions in the finding aid, to make sure that it was accurate, and as detailed as it needed to be.

Exploring documents that ranged from handwritten letters to missionary history to brochures about Korea, I had to remind myself not to read the documents themselves. Processing an archive isn’t about reading the documents. Handing me pages and pages of typewritten and handwritten documents and telling me not to read them takes willpower! I only skimmed. I told myself I was familiarizing myself with the documents, and checking to see if any details jumped out that would improve the level of historical detail in the finding aid, to help researchers (and those searching on the web) find it, with better keywords. Yeah! That’s what I was doing. Not reading! No reading here!

The documents that I absolutely did not read covered the work Chinese missionaries were doing to establish missions and mission schools in Korea, covering a time and place in history I had known absolutely nothing about. And now I’m curious to learn more. (Maybe a stop by the UTS library on the way home!)

After I submitted my work on the finding aid for edits, my next task was to work my way through a box of floppy disks, get the documents onto the hard drive so they could be processed. Some of the disks I handled had one or two files on them, mostly Word documents, sometimes a PowerPoint or PDF. It is a little bit mind boggling to think about the fact that only a few decades ago, our portable media could hold mere kilobytes or megabytes of data. And now, several gigabytes can fit on an even smaller device.

docs and floppiesToday, I worked with, and handled documents that were typed or handwritten in the early 20th century. And floppy disks with documents saved in the early 2000’s.

I’d call that a very good day!

New Intern Thoughts and Expectations

This past year has been an exciting one; last May I graduated Rutgers University with a B.A. in History and English, and I can now say that I have successfully completed my first year of graduate school. Looking back, I remember thinking about my post-college plans and how unsure I was. Pursuing a career as an archivist wasn't an obvious path for me until my final year at Rutgers. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I completed a rewarding and ultimately invaluable internship with an autograph dealer. Though I had previously been introduced to archives through a class at Rutgers, this experience was my first hands-on interaction with primary documents. It was through this internship that I learned to love paging through old letters and documents and deciphering 19th century script. During that summer I had the opportunity to view firsthand some truly remarkable documents, but this was also something that I found problematic. Due to the nature of that business, I was going to be one of the few people who would be able to see these historically important items, and after that summer, I began to seriously consider how I might be able to work with primary documents in a public setting. That experience led me to the Masters program in Archives and Public History at New York University and this internship at the Burke Library Archives working on collections from the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives. 

As part of my coursework at NYU, this past semester I completed an internship at Rutgers University Special Collections. This experience was my first true experience working in an archive, and I was fortunate enough to be able to process an entire collection from beginning to end. That experience was truly formative and has motivated me to take the path of a processing archivist. The initial fear of manipulating original order and removing important documents gave way to wonder and a sense of confidence, as I discovered new avenues to the collection and fit them together within the overall scope of the collection. The collection itself was large enough that it kept me busy for an entire semester; I am now able to say that I processed the Mohegan Colony Association Collection and completed the finding aid for it as well.

Though I now have experience processing a complete archival collection, I believe that I still have much learning to do. I am looking forward to working with Brigette this summer and learning from her. In order to be a successful processing archivist, I need to gain confidence in my skills. For the first month or so at Rutgers I was hesitant to rearrange the collection and tended to second-guess myself. When I first spoke to Brigette about this internship, she advised that she would initially provide hands-on guidance and have me start by processing a smaller collection. Though I am interested in learning about the materials within the collections, it is Brigette's willingness to teach and help me gain that confidence in my abilities that has me excited for my summer at the Burke Library Archives.

Why the Library is Actually the Most Exciting Place in the World

I’ll admit that prior to getting my job in archives at the Burke Library, the extent of my familiarity with archives was based on some combination of the following: Obi Wan Kenobi’s search for the mysterious planet Kamino in the Jedi Archives in Star Wars Episode II, Tom Hank’s struggle to get into the Vatican Archives in Angels and Demons, and my brother’s strange obsession with using archival materials to dig up our family genealogy records.   Yet despite my overall ignorance, somehow nothing in the world sounded more exciting than spending hours at a time holed up in a dusty library tower, sifting through boxes of materials that time (almost) forgot. 

I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a librarian.  What can I say?  I’m book-ish.  I’m also admittedly a vintage kind of girl; I like reclaiming the old for the new.  On top of that one of the major things that attracted me to coming to Union Theological Seminary for my master’s degree was that it boasted of having the “largest theological library in the Western hemisphere,” with holdings of over 700,000 items, including extensive collections of rare archives and special materials.  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.  But it sure sounded cool.

On my first day at work I was shown to my desk, introduced to the others in the tower, and given a tour of the archive storage facilities.  All of that was pretty much what I expected.  But then I was handed several academic articles on archival theory and told to spend the next couple of days reading and familiarizing myself with the material.  A crash course in library and information sciences: not what I was expecting.  I had always wondered what a degree in library studies could possibly entail.  Having always been a pretty organized person, all my life it had seemed to me that the proper place for anything was basically self-evident.  But of course, real truth is always a moving target, and what is self-evident to me at one moment may be in no way evident to someone else in some other moment.   “Facts” are never as secure as we want them to be.  Information is always being framed and re-framed by the motivations and assumptions that give it context, and context is made up of a thousand silent and invisible factors that create the paradigms that give facts meaning and make information matter.  

Organizing information is complicated.

During that same semester I was also taking a class that covered roughly a thousand years of church history.  Union’s world-renowned history department prides itself on teaching seminarians to read history not as students but as scholars, meaning that we are never given a history textbook to tell us “what happened.”  Instead, we kept reading from, and hearing about the importance of, primary documents and sources. 

Primary documents are original historical documents, and they are incredibly empowering.  By consulting primary documents you are consulting history itself on your own terms and with your own questions.  You don’t have to settle for some other scholar’s version of the story (and for women, you don’t have to settle for what is so often his-story).   You can draw your own conclusions, make your own connections and interpretations, solve your own mysteries, draw up your own report.  This is what makes the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary so important.  This is why people travel from all over the world every day to come here and look through our records, to lay their eyes on those primary sources and sleuth out their own facts, asking their own questions, writing their own stories. 

Through this work, I have had the opportunity to collect my own information and begin writing my own stories about a variety of subjects, most of which are vital to the writing and the work that I hope to do as an ecumenical Christian.  Maybe it is just the artist in me that possesses such a deep appreciation for tactility, but being able to see and handle primary documents for myself has led to some truly profound insights.  It is one thing to read a .pdf article or a published book containing transcriptions of text that someone wrote 200 years ago; it is quite another thing to hold in your own hands the fragile, slightly crumbling sheets of paper that the 200-year-old author actually scrawled his or her ink upon.  

One major shift in my perspective happened early on while working on my second collection.  I found two letters from 1901 written by Badi’u’llah and Muhammed Ali to the newly-established  Baha’i faith communities in the United States.  The language and style was so reminiscent of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian churches of the first century.  This somehow gave clarity, potency, and incarnate form to the way I thought about those ancient texts.  The words are now translated into hundreds of languages, printed and bound in hundreds of editions of what we’ve now come to call the sacred “New Testament,” the Word of God.  But at one point, they were just letters.  Real letters.  Could it be possible that such a worthy fate would befall any of these documents I am currently now holding in my hands? 

It was then that the somewhat obscure, behind-the-scenes work of library archivists throughout time began to take on huge significance for me.  I realized that this is not just a quirky part-time work-study job of organizing boxes, books, and folders.  This job is about shaping history.  It is about empowering the people of the present and the future to write their own stories about what they believe happened in history, and why.  And as it turns out, nothing in the world is more exciting after all.